Friday, September 07, 2018

This is the tale of The Longest Journey, and I will tell it in my own words, just as Funcom told it to me

Phew! True to its name, The Longest Journey is one of the longest adventure games I've ever played. One of the best, too! It recaptures what I loved about the adventure games I grew up playing: the excitement of exploration, the heady thrill of a lightbulb going off as you finally see the solution to a puzzle, the warmth of meeting a variety of quirky characters and becoming involved in their lives. It also taps into the elements that I've come to love in more recent years: nuanced relationships, a sense of community, positive representation, and an awareness of social issues.

That's no mean feat given how old this game was: it was released in the final weeks of the last millennium, and was one of the last successful old-school big-budget adventure games. It was created by the Norwegian studio Funcom, outside of the Sierra/LucasArts duopoly that dominated the industry, and I don't think I ever even heard of it despite its critical and commercial acclaim. A few years back I played the last entry in the series, Dreamfall: Chapters. I loved those games, and have been looking forward to playing these prequels for some time now.

Before getting into the game itself, some quick technical notes:

This game is fairly ancient (older than Baldur's Gate II!), and I was pleasantly surprised by how well it ran on my computer. Over more than twenty hours of gameplay, I didn't run into a single crash or freeze or game-breaking bug. That said, it belongs to that awkward early generation of 3D games, which have aged much less gracefully than even older sprite-based games. Textures are blotchy, models are rough. On the plus side, the character animations are surprisingly well-done and hold up great, and the voice acting is so phenomenal that it leads me to forgive almost all flaws.

It runs out of the box on Steam without any mods or patches, but feels like it's barely scraping by. It automatically resizes the monitor resolution to run, and disables Steam Overlay and other elements I've grown used to having. It also janks up the system fonts, so if you notice any problems after exiting the game, re-enable ClearType in the Windows Control Panel. The lack of Steam Overlay means I wasn't able to take any screenshots during the game, so please excuse their absence in this post; I borrowed a few illustrative examples from other sources.

Overall audio quality is good, and the voice acting is fantastic, but there are occasional pops at the start of some audio clips, which is especially distracting when they loop. Fortunately it's very rare, but happens most often in areas near the start of the game.

The one straight-up glitch I noticed was that some characters have textures that are completely missing, so some parts of their bodies are see-through. I don't know for sure what causes this, but I suspect that these were originally pure-black 0x000000 textures that on modern graphics cards are being treated as 0x00000000 instead of 0x000000FF. Fortunately this only affects a few relatively minor characters and wasn't too distracting.

Despite the glitches, though, the art design is insanely good. Every scene has fixed camera angles, with some of the most interesting and artistic layouts I've ever seen. One scene might have an enormous tower that fills the foreground, while you're a spec in the distance, running your way across a deserted parking lot. One is shown through a security camera, with timestamps and frame overlays silently documenting your intrusion. 

Heh... one thing I didn't realize until I was nearly halfway through the game is that you can run somewhere by double-clicking. I happened to discover it during the one puzzle where you're required to move quickly before a timer expires. Up until then, I'd actually really enjoyed the slow, almost languorous pace of the game. It takes time to walk from place to place, but it felt nice, like I was soaking in the ambience of these imaginary worlds instead of racing from one location to another. It actually reminded me quite a bit of Life Is Strange, which similarly deliberately strives for a more laid-back feel for the game. I might have declared my love for The Longest Journey when I realized that you could sit on a bench and just relax there for a while. There's no reason to do this, no in-game motivation, but it feels great to take a break and watch the world go by.

To reiterate, The Longest Journey is an old-school point-and-click adventure game, which is part of the lineage but fundamentally different from the modern choice-and-consequences adventure game. The gameplay is largely oriented around finding clickable areas on the screen, interacting with them, collecting items, combining items, and finding where those items can be used on the screen. It's been quite some time since I've played this style of adventure game, and I feel like TLJ is an especially good example of the form. Most puzzles are well-designed, things you can mentally work through and anticipate a solution, as opposed to desperately trying every possible permutation. One especially good technique the game uses is providing hints when you're close-but-not-quite-there for a solution: instead of just failing to accept something, April will speak a line like "Hm, I need to X this Y before I can use it to Z." That gives a much more graceful progression through puzzles than the impenetrable walls of failure that made the genre infamous.

All that said, there were a handful of times that I gave up and needed to Google a solution. I rarely felt bad about that afterwards. One particular frustration stands out in my mind: there's a fair amount of dialogue in the game, more than in LucasArts games and a lot more than in Sierra games. You'll sometimes have an available prompt like "What do you know about the Dodecahedron of Verisimilitude?", which will lead to a long and engaging explanation. After that you'll see a new prompt like "Remind me about the Dodecahedron", which lets you know that you already explored that line of inquiry and lets you get an abbreviated response that just recaps the most relevant information. Except, in one particular case, asking that "Remind me about..." question causes the other person to share additional information, which is necessary in order to proceed.

As a whole, though, the puzzles generally felt fair and interesting. The dialogue was great, too. I don't think much of it is required to finish the game, but I happily explored every piece of it that I could. The worldbuilding is fantastic, both the big-scale metaphysics of the game and the small-scale relationships April has with her family, friends, and new acquaintances.

Unlike Dreamfall Chapters or other modern adventure games, there really aren't any significant choices or consequences. There might be one or two cases where you can make a decision that has some roleplaying significance for the protagonist, but it never leads to a branching plot line or anything. That would have been cool, but it also doesn't feel like the game needs it... the story is fully compelling on its own terms, even if it does technically run on rails.


At the top of the list of reasons why I love this game, April Ryan is one of the most likeable protagonists I've played as. An aspiring painter who fled an abusive rural home and is scraping together a new life in the big city, she combines courage and determination with a strong streak of humility, loyalty, and groundedness. She has ambitions and desires, but is also very aware of managing her budget and supporting her friends.

As with Dreamfall Chapters, the game is broken into a series of chapters; a continuous plot runs through the whole thing, but each chapter can be a bit more focused on its particular environment and puzzles. Unlike DC, you keep the same protagonist throughout, and don't necessarily switch between worlds at the end of each chapter: the transitions are tied more to major story beats.

The early chapters were probably the slowest and wonkiest part of the game. I enjoyed them, but I think the game really gets going on your second trip to Stark. Before this time, you're mostly wandering around without much of a goal, trying to find things to do. After this, though, you start taking on a much more heroic role, which feels much more earned and resonant than almost any other game I've played. April stands toe to toe with the truly frightening Gribbler, uses her ingenuity to not only secure her own escape but also provide salvation for an entire community, and it feels really good to witness their happiness afterwards. I can't help contrasting this with, say, the classic King's Quest games, where despite supposedly being in charge of a kingdom it never felt like you were doing these things for anyone's benefit other than yourself and your family.

Again, the game is long, and the plot has ample opportunity for rising and falling action and reversals and revelations and evolutions. After experiencing the heady thrill of moments of triumph, it feels especially disenheartening when April makes a series of (required!) mistakes that bring misfortune on her and those around her. Nearly as bad as the consequences are the actions: April withholds information, lies to her benefactors, tricks her friends, all in order to accomplish something important but they make the failure feel even more abject: April hasn't just failed her mission, she's failed herself. But, it's exactly these sorts of story beats that make April so appealing. She berates herself afterwards, feels guilty, dusts herself off, tries to make amends, and keeps moving forward, a little wiser and a little more determined.

Random thought: I kept thinking of parallels between this game and Life Is Strange. I'm guessing that at least some of them were intentional, given how well-regarded this game is. I noted above that the overall pace and feel of the games are rather similar: you rarely feel pressured to rush to your destination and are encouraged to sit and enjoy the experience. Additionally:
  • Both protagonists are 18-year-old art students.
  • Both are set in Arcadia.
  • Both feature a journal/diary that's regularly updated with the protagonist's thoughts on recent developments.

There are many more thematic and story parallels, but those are more universal, while the above seem more likely to be deliberate homages.


Favorite character besides April, Stark edition: Fiona
Most annoying character, Stark edition: Burns Flipper
Favorite character besides April, Arcadia edition: Crow (he grew on me!)
Most annoying character, Arcadia edition: Abnaxus
Favorite map: So many great choices! I might go with the cave under the island.
Favorite chapter: Monsters
Favorite item: Constable Guybrush. (Close second: the flute. I love that you can play this anywhere!)
Favorite music: Maybe the tunes in the cafe?
Best villain: The Gribbler, though Gordon Holloway was also nicely menacing
Favorite lore: There's so much! I honestly glazed over for a lot of it, but the political history of Marcuria was really interesting.
Favorite outfit: Maybe her second Arcadia outfit (which is nicely echoed near the end of Dreamfall: Chapters) or her expensive clothes from upper Venice. I really love how her main Arcadia outfit gradually dirties and degrades over time., and it feels like a relief to finally change out of it.
Favorite animation: Speaking to Crow.
Favorite FMV: I was a little surprised by how back-loaded these were in the game. The first shot of going into orbit was really beautiful. The collapse of Roper Klacks' tower was also great and pretty funny.
Favorite line: "18 feels kinda like 17, only I can buy a gun and pilot a hovercraft."
Saddest event: Thinking that Zoe was killed


The Longest Journey was a very long wait - 19 years since its release and two years since I heard about it - but definitely worth it. I'm even more motivated now to press forward and play Dreamfall. It's nice to see that, despite the age and graphical limitations, the game holds up so well. It even holds up well despite me having played the final entry first: I have a pretty strong big-picture idea of what will and won't happen, but there were still many surprises along the way and plenty of moments to enjoy.

For better and worse, they just don't make games like this any more. There will probably never be a major adventure game that requires players to Google for the solutions to puzzles, just adventures where players Google to find out what decisions they should be making. TLJ/Dreamfall seems especially interesting because it's the only franchise I know of that has straddled both sides of that game design chasm, from its old-school origins to its modern conclusion, and I'm looking forward to seeing how Dreamfall helps span that gap.


  1. I LOVE THIS GAME. Got it and beat it when it first came out (and several times since), though not in the last ten years. Happy to know it holds up. I really still get warm and fuzzy memories when I think about April and how down to clown she is about being suddenly and mysteriously transported to a whole other effing world!

    1. Thank you for the strong recommendation, I might not have played this otherwise! And yes, I also dig April's resilience in the face of world-shifting weirdness.. she goes through a brief "Am I going crazy?!" phase, but doesn't really hesitate to check things out and help out.